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StoryCorps in Oklahoma: Remembering Clara Luper and the "Dignity" of the Sanitation Strike (ENCORE) (Feb 03, 2012)

In 1969, W.B. Parker served as a church pastor and one of the leaders of Oklahoma City’s black community. African-Americans in Oklahoma City had already earned a number of victories regarding civil rights, after the successful sit-in movements led by Clara Luper. Parker spoke with his son Winfred about his memories of the Oklahoma City Sanitation Workers Strike.

“There were 324 sanitation workers – about 80% of whom were black,” Parker said. “They were not paid equally to the whites, and they were not given the opportunity to share positions of leadership. They had very low self-esteem. There was a lady named Clara Luper who got involved with the strikers and her response was to chew out somebody. ‘You’re the backbone of Oklahoma City. ‘There’s as much dignity,’ she said, ‘in carrying for the garbage as there is in being the city manager. Don’t ever think of yourself as being nobody.’"

With Luper’s help, the African-American community began helping the Sanitation Workers achieve better working conditions, and improve their own self-worth. The group appeared before the personnel of Oklahoma City. The city officials asked Luper for the names of those who were making the complaints.

“Clara’s answer was ‘Are you crazy? I’m not giving their names to have them further discriminated against!’ Parker said. “Having not been able to accomplish anything working with the city leaders, we decided to march on what we called 'Black Friday.' That was a memorable day.”

The group marched on City Hall on August 19. Luper and several other school teachers stayed out of school that day. Schoolchildren joined by the hundreds on what they termed “Black Friday,” a misnomer once several whites joined the march. The group gathered just before midnight and began their march at 6 a.m.

“Police ordered us to turn around and go back,” Parker said. “Somebody broke out singing ‘Don’t let nobody turn me around / we’re going to keep on marching until we get downtown’ or something on that order. It was a frightening march, but nothing happened. Nobody was hurt.”

After the march, Oklahoma City city leaders called and said they were willing to work with the leaders of the Sanitation Workers. Led by Rev. W.K. Jackson, Clara Luper, details were worked out for a settlement of the Sanitation Strike.

“Another wall had fallen that separated the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots,’” Parker said.

Produced for KGOU by Jim Johnson, with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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